The Contributions of the 79th Division
And the 314th Infantry Regiment
To the American Expeditionary Force in World War I
The 79th Division trained at Fort Meade, Maryland, commencing in August 1917. On the first anniversary of the U. S. Declaration of War, the 79th became the first National Army division to be reviewed by the civilian Commander-in-Chief, President Woodrow Wilson, at a parade in Baltimore on April 6, 1918.
In July, the division embarked for France. Its arrival at Brest brought the total of U. S. troops in France to one million men. The four regiments trained near Dijon for only 43 days, and moved north to the Meuse-Argonne front west of Verdun. Designed to end the war by capturing the key German railroad center at Sedan, the Meuse-Argonne offensive initially involved nine front-line American divisions, including the 79th, and eventually engaged more than 1.2 million men. General John J. .Black Jack. Pershing commanded the offensive, which at that time was the largest military operation ever undertaken by the U. S. Army.
Although the 79th Division had completed far less than half the prescribed training and had no combat experience, Pershing assigned it the most difficult task of the attacking divisions . the capture of Montfaucon, a butte that had been heavily fortified by the Germans. One of the lead units in the attack was the 314th Infantry Regiment composed primarily of men from eastern Pennsylvania.
Called the "Gibraltar of the Western Front," Montfaucon constituted one of the strongest positions in Germany's famed Hindenburg Line. The fortress consisted of concrete bunkers, machine gun nests, deep shelters and . most importantly . a sophisticated telescope in a well-protected observation post that could call down accurate artillery fire on the entire American front. Because the hill was such an important military asset, the Germans protected it with two advanced defensive lines and countless bands of barbed wire. Pershing regarded its early capture as essential to the success of the entire operation.
On September 26, 1918, the 79th attacked the formidable position, with the 313th and 314th Regiments leading the advance on the left and right respectively. Although the Germans had abandoned their first-line positions in the face of a tremendous artillery barrage, they fiercely defended the second line that lay a mile south of Montfaucon. At the ruined village of Malancourt, the 314th entered a box valley surrounded on three sides by steep hills. The Germans had dug in dozens of machine-guns among these hills, effectively entrapping the regiment and inflicting devastating losses. Though the 314th fought valiantly, it could not overcome the stubborn German resistance, and spent the night of September 26 under intense fire without support.
On the morning of September 27, the 314th and 313th, aided by troops from the 315th and 316th regiments, renewed their attack on Montfaucon. Advancing doggedly onward with the support of artillery and tanks, they captured the butte by noon. By taking the key position in a day and a half, the 79th Division had convincingly disproved the prediction of the French high command that the Americans would not capture Montfaucon before Christmas.
As the Germans rushed reinforcements into the area, the U. S. divisions encountered much stiffer resistance, akin to that encountered by the 79th at Montfaucon. Following the capture of the fortress, the division took the village of Nantillois and crashed into the main line of German resistance near the Madeleine Farm just south of the village of Cunel. In the rolling hills in front of the Bois d'Ogon, the division lost many men due to German machine-gun fire and artillery barrages directed from Hill 378 east of the Meuse River. The stiffening German resistance and massive reinforcements eventually brought Pershing's troops to a momentary standstill. In light of the 79th's losses in men and materiel, the division was withdrawn from the line and sent to a quiet sector of the front for refitting. Despite its losses, the 79th division had performed magnificently. The bravery and persistence of the troops and their compatriots are recognized by the tallest U. S. military monument in Europe, a Doric column some 200 feet tall.
The 79th Division and the 314th Regiment did not remain long out of combat. Following the fall of Montfaucon, the task of directing German artillery fire fell to observers and spotters on Hill 378 located in the ridges lining the east bank of the Meuse River. The observation post on La Borne de Cornouiller -- or "Corned Willy Hill," as the doughboys called Hill 378 -- could direct fire to any location of the 24-mile-wide Meuse-Argonne Front. General Pershing insisted on its capture, and called on the 79th to carry out the task. The division commander, Major General Joseph Kuhn, called Corned Willy Hill "an obstacle of the most serious character," and the attack proved extremely difficult. The hill was riven by deep ravines lined with trenches, bolstered by reinforced bunkers and peppered by machine guns. Yet after several unsuccessful assaults, the Doughboys of the 79th took the position on November 6, 1918. As the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, the 79th Division and the 314th Regiment pressed an attack on Cote de Romagne, a fortified hill that was the last obstacle before the troops reached the Woevre Plain that led directly into Germany. Yet the capture of Montfaucon and Hill 378 had already secured the 79th Division.s place in the pantheon of American military history.
Following the war, veterans of 314th Regiment purchased the officer.s club-meeting area cabin they had constructed at Fort Meade, Maryland, from the U.S. Government and re-erected it at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania on the grounds of the Washington Memorial Chapel. The museum has served as an appropriate memorial and vivid reminder of the sacrifice of the regiment's soldiers for nearly a century. It has no equivalent anywhere else in the country among regimental memorials, and indeed now serves, after over 90 years, as one of the few notable living monuments to the services of the veterans of the First World War.
Now, however, the rustic log cabin and its relics of the valiant past require more attention and need more maintenance than the Descendants and Friends 314th AEF and its aging membership can provide. As a result, the organization is seeking support to move the structure and its contents to the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
As the United States prepares for the centennial of its participation in World War I and its emergence as a leading member of the international community, it is imperative that the few reminders of America's contribution to the Great War be preserved and enhanced. The restoration of the log cabin and its permanent installation at the Army Heritage and Education Center should be undertaken by a grateful nation determined to honor the men who fought and died to ensure a peaceful world.